How Trump Has Pretzled the ‘Post-Truth’ Academic Left

It’s often said that most of what the academic elites call “philosophy” is nothing but some underutilized minds worrying themselves about questions that common-sense folk find obvious.  The saying came to mind as I listened recently to some of these folks straining to fit their various theories to the Age of Trump.  More precisely, they were double-helixing themselves trying to explain why the amoral, relativist, truth-denying theories they’ve championed for so long are actually good reasons for hating the supposedly amoral, relativist, truth-defying current President.

Listening to this theorizing crystallized (at least for this initially reluctant Trump supporter) why President Trump is indispensable.

One of the philosophical exchanges concerned the allegedly inscrutable “problem of the self,” of explaining how we can say a human being remains the same person over time even though one’s physical cells are all lost and replaced many times throughout life.  Yes, this actually can pose a conundrum, if you reject out of hand the existence of all supernatural entities including the soul and God, as the elites generally do.

This problem of the self raises moral issues.  If you don’t know when a person’s selfhood begins or ends, how can you judge whether that person is moral or immoral?  Sure, they say, Hitler slaughtered six million or so human beings, but wasn’t he also an animal lover who practiced vegetarianism and was kind to his pets?

I kid you not, nor do I exaggerate.  The great minds of our age fret over this.  How, they ask, could the genocidal fiend and the lover of little critters be one and the same “person”?  And if they are not just one “person,” how do we determine which of them is which, and which one we should judge or repudiate?  And, more generally, don’t most criminals have at least some decent traits?  So how can we justly pass judgment upon or punish any of them?

The elites find themselves in a quandary. They dismiss the notion that each human soul is a unique and continuing moral and spiritual battleground, because they reject the spirit and recognize no morality other than the arbitrary rules that they, themselves, hand down.  Consequently, they’re perplexed by questions that for most people in Flyover County, USA are just straightforward common sense. 

Not that such difficulties stop them from self-assuredly holding forth when they want to.  For example, one thing they know for absolute damn sure is that Donald J. Trump is morally unfit for leadership, having cheated on his wives and made some obnoxious comments about touching women.

Which leads to the question:  Why?  Why all the revulsion and resistance to this one president?  Are his sexual indiscretions so much worse than Clinton’s or Kennedy’s?  Are his policy positions so much more at odds with the academic left than those of George W. Bush – who, though surely reviled during his administration, never encountered a complete, unanimous, and openly declared mobilization against his very legitimacy from every major institution across the country?

Why does the academic left find Trump so extraordinarily offensive and threatening?

Another of those recent philosophical discussions answers that question.  It carried the title Philosophers versus Post-Truth and opened with a straight-up attack (by Harvard professor Homi Bhabha) on the allegedly truth-indifferent character of the present administration and its allies. 

For anyone who’s been on a university campus the last few decades, the title itself is ironic, if not ridiculous.  Wasn’t it the philosophers themselves who brought us “post-truth,” who mocked the simpletons of Middle America and their naïve idea that the world is full of facts, and that statements about those facts are either true or false?  Yes, it was.  For decades they proclaimed there is no such thing as truth – only perceptions and opinions, all shaped and distorted by experience, individual context, and cultural forces.

Such was the received wisdom among sophisticates during the Clinton years, when accounts of events could be declared, by ostensibly serious people, “no longer operative.”  It persisted when the Obama administration told us that the Benghazi tragedy was not a planned terrorist act but a spontaneous popular uprising in response to an anti-Islam movie.  Historical events are fluid and complicated, we were told, and, as it turns out, the truth is not actually out there.  Truth is nowhere, they said, because there is no such thing, so truth-challenged politicians are no big deal.

But that was then.  Now, one of the panelists on Philosophers versus Post-Truth quotes Rudy Giuliani channeling Pilate’s “what is truth?” to a hostile journalist and sees in Mr. Giuliani’s words a despicable assault on the underpinnings of all that this panelist holds dear.

Some would say the zeal to tweak Trump and his supporters can be chalked up to partisanship.  But it is more than that.  The “philosophers versus post-truth” weren’t just taking political sides, they were arguing against relativism in a way not heard, except in conservative circles, for many years.

So, again, the question:  Why now?  Why is academic philosophy suddenly fascinated by facts and lamenting the loss of “truth?”  What is it about the Trump Era that prompts this change?  The answer is Trump’s assault on the new globalism, and the realization that a renewed confidence in “truth” may be useful to defend the globalist cause.

Regardless of how Clinton, Bush, and Obama may have differed on particular policies, none of them, and no American president at least since Ronald Reagan, has opposed the worldwide advance of bureaucratic centralism.  Nor have they resisted very much the subordination of American mores and interests to the self-interested secular elites of the interconnected global bureaucracy.  Trump has taken the fight to that vast sprawling blob, threatening its pecuniary and political interests, including the interests of the bureaucracy’s members and friends in the academic establishments.

The world has changed since the days when truth-minimalization was philosophy’s fad.  Back then, the left still perceived its main enemy to be the “western tradition.”  Extolling the cultural variability of viewpoints was therefore ideologically useful.  When widely accepted truths were antithetical to the left, it made sense for the left to attack the very concept of truth.

No longer.  Today, the received truths are those emanating from the left and its institutions.  The globalist left’s messages and priorities control the popular imagination at least as much as the “logocentric” western tradition influenced the culture in the mid-twentieth century.  Today, the rebels and resisters are largely on the right – from the America First folks to the Brexiteers and their continental counterparts.  Thus, whereas leftist philosophy 60 years ago celebrated the disparate wisdom of many cultures, it now derides all dissent from the dominant leftist message as “tribalism” and as an ignorant and irresponsible assault on the “truth.”

In short, relativism is for rebels, so it is of little use to today’s institutionalized left.

All this emerged in the Philosophers versus Post-Truth discussion.  Regardless of the participants’ technical differences concerning the status of “truth” in the abstract, they shared a unanimous zeal to restore epistemological order.  Public “discourse,” they all agreed, must proceed according to “observation, rationality, and enlightenment principles” or “interpretational best practices.”  In short, they were bringing back logos with a vengeance, because appeals to observation, reason, and “best” practices only make sense if there are objective facts to observe, binding rules of logic to guide our reasoning, and an objective standard for deciding which practices are “best.” 

Above all else, the panelists agreed that their secularist, centralizing norms must be defended against the “tribalist” boogeymen, among whom the most decadent and dangerous is Donald J. Trump.

That is why Trump is indispensable.  He stands with all the local “tribes” against the great and growing collective.

None of this is to say that Trump or conservatives should take up relativism or be excused for spreading falsehoods, notwithstanding Winston Churchill’s dictum about guarding the truth with a squadron of lies.  The subtleties are for another day.

But it is surely a signal event, equally amusing and important, when the institutions that proudly brought us the “post truth” world now rue their own achievement.  And that is the truth.

Image credit: Pickpik

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